Friday, 7 July 2017

Pika: a misunderstood victim of grassland degradation

*By Jamyang Dolma

Humans emerged as the most dominant species in the world, influencing both the survival and extinction of many species.
Modern civilization with development in many aspects has made people more educated, civilized and ironically more ruthless. We hunt wild animal for their skins, organs, and worst kill them for being pest.
Unfortunately, pika (abra in tibetan ) , small and furry wild animal, scurrying on the Tibetan plateau was the target of a large scale eradication since 1962, as pikas were considered pest causing immense damage to the local ecosystem.
Extensive research on the role of pika on the rangeland of the Tibetan plateau has given rise to two contradictory result:  while some consider them as a keystone species of Tibet's rangeland, others blame them as a factor for declining alpine meadow condition. Finding the actual role of pika on Tibet's rangeland might be too late and the species could soon be in the threatened red list of the international union for conservation of nature (IUCN).
Human footprint is the main cause of Tibetan plateau degrading rangeland. As George Schaller stated in his book, Tibet wild, "pika are not the cause of degraded grassland but the indicator of the overgrazed and degraded land".
Mass poisoning of pika began in 1962 as a pest competing with livestock for forage and causing soil erosion but grassland degradation still occurring, so who should be blamed next?
As Andrew Smith and J. Marc Foggin (1999) wrote in their paper, Instead of spending huge resources on killing them, pika should be considered as an alternative method to save Tibet's rangelands. Pikas are considered keystone species with immense benefit to the rangeland ecosystem in Tibet.
Such as:
·         Pika burrow are used by different type of birds as breeding ground
·         Pika faeces provide nutrient to the soil
·         Pika help in loosening the soil layer making it more suitable for water storage
·         Pika help in prevention of soil erosion
·         they are the food sources for many predators like foxes, wolves, snow leopards and brown bears  (keeping pikas population in control)
·         More importantly, pikas feeds on herbs and other poisonous plant species harmful and unpalatable to livestock.
The extermination of pika population has been justified for their presence on a degraded land and their competition with livestock for food. The antipathy towards pika from local community primarily arises from pika burrowing habitat which deface surface area and cause accident when travelling through such places.  The above reason found to be true to some extend as food scarcity make pika forage on plants preferred by livestock. The mass eradication of pika because of their home location seems very brutal and unfair. The alpine rangeland problems are, in fact, caused by unsustainable use of land by humans without proper and realistic measures. The Chinese government should solve such problem with logical solution instead of blaming pika.
The extermination of pika in 1962 was done by using pesticide sodium fluoroacetate (compound 1080), which is toxic to both human and animals.  Later in the mid-1980s, it was replaced with toxin botulinum type C which affect animals only and kill them by effecting their neuron system. Both toxin are targeted for the pika and other pests in the region, however it has also affect livestock and other wild animal passing through the affected area.
The world would be a sad place, if the once freely roaming, small furry animal largely mistaken for rodent are to be completely exterminated from the alpine rangeland.  Everything in this world has both good and bad sides to it. pika might be harmful to the rangeland of Tibet on the bases of their habitat, competition  with livestock for food but their positive effects on Tibet's rangeland are far greater than their negative impacts  on the complex ecosystem of Tibet.
In conclusion, pike should be used for restoring the degrading rangeland instead of blaming them for current situation.

 *Jamyang Dolma is an intern at the Environment & Development Desk of the Tibet Policy Institute

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